A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, December 5, 2014

War Plans and Strategies 1914: The Alexandretta Scenario Part I: Strategic Origins of the Idea

One of the great "What ifs" of the First World War in the Middle East stems from prewar strategic planning and events in the early months of the war, when British planning against the Ottoman Empire focused on two competing plans for attacking the Ottomans. The War Office, under Lord Kitchener (who until the outbreak of war had been Britain's man in Egypt) advocated an amphibious landing on the Syrian coast at the port of  Alexandretta (today the Turkish town of İskenderun) to disrupt Turkish communications and cut the railways. The Admiralty, on the other hand, under First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, was backing Churchill's pet project of a landing on the Dardanelles and opening the Turkish Straits.

I assume my readers know enough about the war to know that the Gallipoli project carried the day, and failed massively. Fans of alternative history and "what if?' scenarios may speculate on whether the Alexandretta project could have worked. I intend to devote a post to that subject, but first I want to look at the strategic origins of the idea as part of a number of posts on war plans and strategies.

Interestingly, the idea first originated with an event that was the subject of a recent post: the Taba Crisis of 1906. That alerted British planners to the potential danger of a Turkish attack against the Suez Canal, the critical Imperial lifeline to India. Given the anomalous position of Egypt as both an Ottoman province and a de facto British protectorate, especially as the Young Turks with German help were strengthening the Ottoman military, an attack on the Canal was not completely out of the question even absent a general European War.

The Haifa Scenario

The contingency planning scenarios which followed envisioned not a passive defense of the Canal against a Turkish attack, but a more aggressive forward defense. At least as early as 1909 the Committee on Imperial Defence (CID) approved a contingency scenario under which in the event of a threat to the Canal, Britain would land four divisions at Haifa (the head of a rail spur from Damascus) to cut the Turkish lines of communications and supply. At the time, other landing sites (Alexandretta, Beirut, Acre, and Jaffa) for this intervention were considered; Haifa was initially chosen, and British intelligence reportedly carried out some reconnaissance.

The original plans seem predicated on a war with Turkey alone, in which Britain would have significant forces available. By the time it became clear that Turkey might actually enter the war on the German side, Britain was already bogged down on the Western Front in France, and moving troops from Egypt and India to that Front. Britain had fewer forces available for a Syrian landing, as it had to simultaneously defend the Canal and maintain forces on the Mesopotamian Front (though admittedly the Russian campaign in the Caucasus also created another front for Turkey).

The Gaps in the Baghdad Railway

The strategic situation in 1914 also made Alexandretta more attractive than Haifa. The Ottoman (and German) vision for tying the far-flung parts of the Empire centered around the German-funded project called the Baghdad Railway (popularly the Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway, though the Berlin-to-Constantinople parts already existed). By 1914 the railway was still incomplete. Because Ottoman planners wanted to keep the railway inland, where British Navy guns could not threaten it, they decided to avoid routing it down the coast. This meant though, that it would have to go through both the Taurus and Amanus mountain ranges. The tunnels were not yet ready. There was a 30-mile gap in the Taurus range, and the five-mile-long Bagche tunnel in the Amanus was also incomplete. Worse still, the road through the Amanus passes was unsuitable for motor traffic. There was no easy way to connect with Aleppo, where the rail lines could connect one to Damascus, Haifa and Medina.

As a result, the only practical connection between Adana and Aleppo was to take a spur line along the coast, that terminated at Alexandretta, and then travel by road from Alexandretta to Aleppo. But the road from Alexandretta to Aleppo was rocky and muddy and was considered nearly impassable for motorized traffic.

And worse still, the rail line north of Alexandretta ran along the coast, making it vulnerable to naval gunnery, and also was just above the high-water line; heavy winter showers could wash out parts of the line. This period map shows the situation:
Ironically, when Djemal Pasha, one of the Young Turk triumvirate, headed to Syria in November-December 1914 to take up his new duties as Fourth Army Commander and also political authority in Syria, he experienced the problem firsthand; the rail line between Adana and Alexandretta was washed out in places and the road from Alexandretta to Aleppo nearly impassable by motor vehicle. (I'll be quoting his account in a forthcoming post.) As bad as this route was, it was faster than the Amanus pass until the tunnel was complete.

So a major Ottoman force seeking to move from Anatolia to either the Suez Canal or the Mesopotamian theater of war had to endure one of these routes through the mountains, and the easiest of these was via Alexandretta. An occupation of Alexandretta by the British would cut a key line of communications; even just naval raids along the coast (which did occur in December 1914-January 1915) could disrupt the rail traffic.

The British already had hopes for risings among the non-Turkish citizens of the Ottoman Empire. Although Sharif Hussein of Mecca's Arab Revolt would not occur until 1916, there were Arab nationalist secret societies not just in the Arab Vilayets but within the Ottoman Army itself. Both the British and especially the French also hoped for an uprising of Lebanese Maronites, with whom French intelligence had contacts. The dream of detaching the Arab provinces might be sped along by an Alexandretta landing.

The second part of this series will deal with the War Office versus Admiralty, Gallipoli versus Alexandretta debate, and a third part will consider the "what ifs" and in mid-December I'll be detailing the British raids along the Sinai and Syrian coasts, including Alexandretta.

No comments: